Logo for NC Quitline
Image courtesy of the Tobacco Control Branch, NC DHHS

Funds for tobacco control and prevention are their lowest level in a decade in this year’s House and Senate budgets.

By Rose Hoban

Two years after North Carolina teens reported their lowest rates of smoking in decades, state lawmakers have continued to deny budget money for tobacco-prevention efforts aimed at young people.

Mecklenburg County students Hannah Douglass and Morgan Rosenhauer show off their temporary tattoos
Mecklenburg County students Hannah Douglass and Morgan Rosenhauer came to the Legislature last year to ask for sustained tobacco prevention funding.

Neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives budget has money allocated for the Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered. teen tobacco-prevention campaign that won national awards and has been replicated in multiple states.

Two years ago, the teen tobacco-prevention campaign received $17.3 million; last year, that was slashed to about $2.7 million; this year, nothing from either chamber.

The budgets also underfund the tobacco QuitlineNC by as much as 45 percent. According to Pam Seamans, head of the N.C. Alliance for Health, the QuitlineNC costs about $1.8 million to run for a year, a reduction from the previous year’s budget of $2.7 million.

The House has allocated $1 million; the Senate, $1.4 million.

Seamans called the budget numbers “outrageous.”

“The elimination of funding for these programs is even more outrageous considering the hundreds of millions of dollars the state brings in annually” from the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) negotiated with cigarette makers in 1999, Seamans wrote in a statement.

Students from SE Halifax High School line the gallery above the NC House of Representatives chamber
Students from SE Halifax High School came to ask lawmakers for sustained tobacco prevention funding last year. Here they stood in the gallery above the NC House of Representatives.

“This year the state received a payment of $211 million and the state will receive these payments for as long as the tobacco companies remain in business,” he wrote.

North Carolina has received more than $1 billion since the MSA went into effect; the original intent of the money was to compensate states for Medicaid costs incurred in paying for the care of people with tobacco-related diseases.

In the past, MSA money went to several state-operated trust funds, including 25 percent to the Health and Wellness Trust Fund that distributed the money to organizations around the state to promote health.

Two years ago, the legislature dismantled the trust fund and moved the decision about tobacco-prevention funds to the General Assembly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use costs about $2.46 billion a year in health care bills in North Carolina. The CDC has repeatedly said that tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of disease.

Docs prescribe prevention

UNC family physician Adam Goldstein said that in the 2011 Youth Behavioral Risk Survey, a study done every two years, North Carolina’ youth smoking rate was at a historic low.

According to the study, 4.2 percent of middle school students had smoked in their lives, down from 9.3 percent in 2003; 15.5 percent of high school students had smoked, down from 27.3 percent in 2003.

Dr. Adam Goldstein (far left) came to the Legislature with several colleagues to advocate for tobacco prevention money in the budget. Here they present a letter supporting the funding to Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary).
Dr. Adam Goldstein (far left) came to the Legislature with several colleagues to advocate for tobacco prevention money in the budget. Here they present a letter supporting the funding to Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary).

“You have federal money that has come in that provides a lot of advertising that’s focused on teens,” said budget writer Rep Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) in defense of the cuts. “The Quitline is still there, and obviously North Carolina, a few years ago, decided to ban smoking from most indoor venues.

“We’ve seen numbers dropping in terms of smoking out there; they’ve been heading in the right direction. So I think we’re in good shape.”

Goldstein disagreed.

“The next survey will be done this fall,” he said. “We estimate there will be a 2 percent increase from 2011.”

Goldstein said that when state tobacco programs have been cut dramatically, smoking rates have almost uniformly increased, as the tobacco industry continues to pump billions of dollars a year into advertising.

“The state gets $139 million in MSA funds,” he said. “The simple fact of the math is that putting in 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent [into teen tobacco-prevention efforts] is really trivial, but yet can still have an impact.”

But Dollar cited the fact that kids don’t see smoking in movies the way they used to, and that smoking is no longer permitted in restaurants nor on the grounds of schools throughout the state.

“I think what you’re seeing on the whole is that society is making it’s decision about smoking and they’re moving away from it,” Dollar said.

“We have 100,000 new sixth graders who do need to be given some form of education about the dangers of smoking,” Seamans said. “We have had legislators say to us, ‘Who doesn’t know by now that smoking’s dangerous?’ The fact of the matter is that it’s these 100,000 new 6th graders that may or may not know.”

“We have to counteract all those marketing messages that young people are susceptible to,” Seamans said.  “This is a drop in the bucket.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...